How to Answer Tough Interview Questions

Job interviews can feel like scaling the Matterhorn: You rise up to the challenge and know what to expect, but it can feel paralyzing not knowing what to do in the moment when you reach the summit. We’ve heard the same interview questions about why you think you’ll be a good fit for the organization and where you expect to see yourself in five years. When it comes to women seeking jobs, there’s the triple threat of not just sexist bias, but bias against mothers and caregivers plus disproportionate age discrimination.

The major challenge arises when you want to answer these questions honestly but without losing the opportunity. Here’s how you can be prepared to answer these common tough questions that are likely to come up on job interviews.

Being asked to explain work gaps

Gaps in resumes are incredibly common, most often due to having children, caregiving responsibilities, illness or simply taking an incredibly long time to find another job. Despite such gaps being common, interviewers can put you on the spot to explain them.

Directly asking questions that could reveal your age, marital status or family status are illegal in most states. However, it doesn’t mean employers won’t ask or find ways to get this information out of you in the interview stage. Honesty is the best approach, and explaining that you’ve had to look after children or parents is totally normal. The same goes for long-term unemployment.

Tell the interviewer the truth, but also frame it with regard to how the new skills you picked up could be relevant to the job. Did becoming a parent make you better at multitasking? Did you do volunteer work or use your time while unemployed to take classes and improve your skills? Looking for work is practically a full-time job in and of itself, and you can easily justify that work gap. Practice some ways you can frame it, such as, “I took writing classes when I needed a break from job-hunting and ended up learning a lot about how to craft effective business blog posts, and I gave freelance writing a try.”

Past salaries relative to what you’re asking for now

Women tend to end up in a vicious cycle of underpayment and being denied opportunities when it comes to the salary question. If you disclose how much you made at prior jobs and were underpaid, accepting lower pay can be inevitable. But if you negotiate for a higher salary at the interview, you can be seen as too assertive.

Research the company in advance along with comparable salaries for your area and industry and take this data with you to the interview.

Look at the entire compensation package aside from what the job description or careers page on the company’s website tells you. What kind of benefits are offered and how much opportunity is there for advancement? Factor this into your salary request, because a tech startup may give you $100,000 but not offer meaningful benefits while a similar job with an established company could offer $80,000 but offer more generous benefits, such as matching 401(k) contributions, child care assistance, health insurance choices, and other benefits worth far more than the salary difference.

If the interviewer uses your past salary as a starting point, say something like, “A data scientist in New York makes at least $125,000, and based on your benefits package, I feel this is fair for my skill set.”

Lacking experience

You’ve got all the credentials the job demands, except one skill is undeveloped or you don’t know a particular software package, so the interviewer is concerned.

Tell the interviewer about how you solved specific problems. Don’t just say you were a great payroll manager; talk about areas you are a sorceress with, such as payroll system snags you fixed, saving the company $10,000 a month. Potential and integrity matter more than five years using a software package.

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